My Mortal Enemy, by Willa Cather

Part I

I

I first met Myra Henshawe when I was fifteen, but I had known about her ever since I could remember anything at all. She and her runaway marriage were the theme of the most interesting, indeed the only interesting, stories that were told in our family, on holidays or at family dinners. My mother and aunts still heard from Myra Driscoll, as they called her, and Aunt Lydia occasionally went to New York to visit her. She had been the brilliant and attractive figure among the friends of their girlhood, and her life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous.

Though she had grown up in our town, Parthia, in southern Illinois, Myra Henshawe never, after her elopement, came back but once. It was in the year when I was finishing High School, and she must then have been a woman of forty-five. She came in the early autumn, with brief notice by telegraph. Her husband, who had a position in the New York offices of an Eastern railroad, was coming West on business, and they were going to stop over for two days in Parthia. He was to stay at the Parthian, as our new hotel was called, and Mrs. Henshawe would stay with Aunt Lydia.

I was a favourite with my Aunt Lydia. She had three big sons, but no daughter, and she thought my mother scarcely appreciated me. She was always, therefore, giving me what she called “advantages,” on the side. My mother and sister were asked to dinner at Aunt Lydia’s on the night of the Henshawes’ arrival, but she had whispered to me: “I want you to come in early, an hour or so before the others, and get acquainted with Myra.”

That evening I slipped quietly in at my aunt’s front door, and while I was taking off my wraps in the hall I could see, at the far end of the parlour, a short, plump woman in a black velvet dress, seated upon the sofa and softly playing on Cousin Bert’s guitar. She must have heard me, and, glancing up, she saw my reflection in a mirror; she put down the guitar, rose, and stood to await my approach. She stood markedly and pointedly still, with her shoulders back and her head lifted, as if to remind me that it was my business to get to her as quickly as possible and present myself as best I could. I was not accustomed to formality of any sort, but by her attitude she succeeded in conveying this idea to me.

I hastened across the room with so much bewilderment and concern in my face that she gave a short, commiserating laugh as she held out to me her plump, charming little hand.

“Certainly this must be Lydia’s dear Nellie, of whom I have heard so much! And you must be fifteen now, by my mournful arithmetic — am I right?”

What a beautiful voice, bright and gay and carelessly kind — but she continued to hold her head up haughtily. She always did this on meeting people — partly, I think, because she was beginning to have a double chin and was sensitive about it. Her deep-set, flashing grey eyes seemed to be taking me in altogether — estimating me. For all that she was no taller than I, I felt quite overpowered by her — and stupid, hopelessly clumsy and stupid. Her black hair was done high on her head, à la Pompadour, and there were curious, zigzag, curly streaks of glistening white in it, which made it look like the fleece of a Persian goat or some animal that bore silky fur. I could not meet the playful curiosity of her eyes at all, so I fastened my gaze upon a necklace of carved amethysts she wore inside the square-cut neck of her dress. I suppose I stared, for she said suddenly: “Does this necklace annoy you? I’ll take it off if it does.”

I was utterly speechless. I could feel my cheeks burning. Seeing that she had hurt me, she was sorry, threw her arm impulsively about me, drew me into the corner of the sofa and sat down beside me.

“Oh, we’ll get used to each other! You see, I prod you because I’m certain that Lydia and your mother have spoiled you a little. You’ve been over-praised to me. It’s all very well to be clever, my dear, but you mustn’t be solemn about it — nothing is more tiresome. Now, let us get acquainted. Tell me about the things you like best; that’s the short cut to friendship. What do you like best in Parthia? The old Driscoll place? I knew it!”

By the time her husband came in I had begun to think she was going to like me. I wanted her to, but I felt I didn’t have half a chance with her; her charming, fluent voice, her clear light enunciation bewildered me. And I was never sure whether she was making fun of me or of the thing we were talking about. Her sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point — it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled. I was fascinated, but very ill at ease, and I was glad when Oswald Henshawe arrived from the hotel.

He came into the room without taking off his overcoat and went directly up to his wife, who rose and kissed him. Again I was some time in catching up with the situation; I wondered for a moment whether they might have come down from Chicago on different trains; for she was clearly glad to see him — glad not merely that he was safe and had got round on time, but because his presence gave her lively personal pleasure. I was not accustomed to that kind of feeling in people long married.

Mr. Henshawe was less perplexing than his wife, and he looked more as I had expected him to look. The prominent bones of his face gave him a rather military air; a broad, rugged forehead, high cheek-bones, a high nose, slightly arched. His eyes, however, were dark and soft, curious in shape — exactly like half-moons — and he wore a limp, drooping moustache, like an Englishman. There was something about him that suggested personal bravery, magnanimity, and a fine, generous way of doing things.

“I am late,” he explained, “because I had some difficulty in dressing. I couldn’t find my things.”

His wife looked concerned for a moment, and then began to laugh softly. “Poor Oswald! You were looking for your new dress shirts that bulge in front. Well, you needn’t! I gave them to the janitor’s son.”

“The janitor’s son?”

“Yes. To Willy Bunch, at home. He’s probably wearing one to an Iroquois ball to-night, and that’s the right place for it.”

Mr. Henshawe passed his hand quickly over his smooth, iron-grey hair. “You gave away my six new shirts?”

“Be sure I did. You shan’t wear shirts that give you a bosom, not if we go to the poorhouse. You know I can’t bear you in ill-fitting things.”

Oswald looked at her with amusement, incredulity, and bitterness. He turned away from us with a shrug and pulled up a chair. “Well, all I can say is, what a windfall for Willy!”

“That’s the way to look at it,” said his wife teasingly. “And now try to talk about something that might conceivably interest Lydia’s niece. I promised Liddy to make a salad dressing.”

I was left alone with Mr. Henshawe. He had a pleasant way of giving his whole attention to a young person. He “drew one out” better than his wife had done, because he did not frighten one so much. I liked to watch his face, with its outstanding bones and languid, friendly eyes — that perplexing combination of something hard and something soft. Soon my mother and uncle and my boy cousins arrived. When the party was complete I could watch and enjoy the visitors without having to think of what I was going to say next. The dinner was much gayer than family parties usually are. Mrs. Henshawe seemed to remember all the old stories and the old jokes that had been asleep for twenty years.

“How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes, it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh, for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh — I was destined to hear that one very often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters, provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.

II

The big stone house, set in its ten-acre park of trees and surrounded by a high, wrought-iron fence, in which Myra Driscoll grew up, was still, in my time, the finest property in Parthia. At John Driscoll’s death it went to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and I could remember it only as a convent. Myra was an orphan, and had been taken into this house as a very little girl and brought up by her great-uncle.

John Driscoll made his fortune employing contract labour in the Missouri swamps. He retired from business early, returned to the town where he had been a poor boy, and built a fine house in which he took great pride. He lived in what was considered great splendour in those days. He kept fast horses, and bred a trotter that made a national record. He bought silver instruments for the town band, and paid the salary of the bandmaster. When the band went up to serenade him on his birthday and on holidays, he called the boys in and treated them to his best whisky. If Myra gave a ball or a garden-party, the band furnished the music. It was, indeed, John Driscoll’s band.

Myra, as my aunt often said, had everything: dresses and jewels, a fine riding horse, a Steinway piano. Her uncle took her back to Ireland with him, one summer, and had her painted by a famous painter. When they were at home, in Parthia, his house was always open to the young people of the town. Myra’s good looks and high spirits gratified the old man’s pride. Her wit was of the kind that he could understand, native and racy, and none too squeamish. She was very fond of him, and he knew it. He was a coarse old codger, so unlettered that he made a poor showing with a pen. It was always told of him that when he became president of our national bank, he burned a lot of the treasury notes sent up to his house for him to sign, because he had “spoiled the sig-nayture.” But he knew a great deal about men and their motives. In his own way he was picturesque, and Myra appreciated it — not many girls would have done so. Indeed, she was a good deal like him; the blood tie was very strong. There was never a serious disagreement between them until it came to young Henshawe.

Oswald Henshawe was the son of a German girl of good family, and an Ulster Protestant whom Driscoll detested; there was an old grudge of some kind between the two men. This Ulsterman was poor and impractical, a wandering schoolmaster, who had charge for a while of the High School in Parthia, and afterwards taught in smaller towns about. Oswald put himself through Harvard with very little help from his parents. He was not taken account of in our town until he came home from college, a handsome and promising young man. He and Myra met as if for the first time, and fell in love with each other. When old Driscoll found that Oswald was calling on his niece, he forbade him the house. They continued to meet at my grandfather’s, however, under the protection of my Aunt Lydia. Driscoll so persecuted the boy that he felt there was no chance for him in Parthia. He roused himself and went to New York. He stayed there two years without coming home, sending his letters to Myra through my aunt.

All Myra’s friends were drawn into the web of her romance; half a dozen young men understudied for Oswald so assiduously that her uncle might have thought she was going to marry any one of them. Oswald, meanwhile, was pegging away in New York, at a time when salaries were small and advancement was slow. But he managed to get on, and in two years he was in a position to marry. He wrote to John Driscoll, telling him his resources and prospects, and asked him for his niece’s hand. It was then that Driscoll had it out with Myra. He did not come at her in a tantrum, as he had done before, but confronted her with a cold, business proposition. If she married young Henshawe, he would cut her off without a penny. He could do so, because he had never adopted her. If she did not, she would inherit two-thirds of his property — the remaining third was to go to the church. “And I advise ye to think well,” he told her. “It’s better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money. I’ve tried both ways, and I know. A poor man stinks, and God hates him.”

Some months after this conversation, Myra went out with a sleighing party. They drove her to a neighbouring town where Oswald’s father had a school, and where Oswald himself had quietly arrived the day before. There, in the presence of his parents and of Myra’s friends, they were married by the civil authority, and they went away on the Chicago express, which came through at two in the morning.

When I was a little girl my Aunt Lydia used to take me for a walk along the broad stone flagging that ran all the way around the old Driscoll grounds. Through the high iron fence we could see the Sisters, out for recreation, pacing two and two under the apple-trees. My aunt would tell me again about that thrilling night (probably the most exciting in her life), when Myra Driscoll came down that path from the house, and out of those big iron gates, for the last time. She had wanted to leave without taking anything but the clothes she wore — and indeed she walked out of the house with nothing but her muff and her porte-monnaie in her hands. My prudent aunt, however, had put her toilet articles and some linen into a travelling-bag, and thrown it out of the back window to one of the boys stationed under an apple-tree.

“I’ll never forget the sight of her, coming down that walk and leaving a great fortune behind her,” said Aunt Lydia. “I had gone out to join the others before she came — she preferred to leave the house alone. We girls were all in the sleighs and the boys stood in the snow holding the horses. We had begun to think she had weakened, or maybe gone to the old man to try to move him. But we saw by the lights behind when the front door opened and shut, and here she came, with her head high, and that quick little bouncing step of hers. Your Uncle Rob lifted her into the sleigh, and off we went. And that hard old man was as good as his word. Her name wasn’t mentioned in his will. He left it all to the Catholic Church and to institutions.”

“But they’ve been happy, anyhow?” I sometimes asked her.

“Happy? Oh, yes! As happy as most people.”

That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people.

When I was older I used to walk around the Driscoll place alone very often, especially on spring days, after school, and watch the nuns pacing so mildly and measuredly among the blossoming trees where Myra used to give garden-parties and have the band to play for her. I thought of the place as being under a spell, like the Sleeping Beauty’s palace; it had been in a trance, or lain in its flowers like a beautiful corpse, ever since that winter night when Love went out of the gates and gave the dare to Fate. Since then, chanting and devotions and discipline, and the tinkle of little bells that seemed forever calling the Sisters in to prayers.

I knew that this was not literally true; old John Driscoll had lived on there for many years after the flight of his niece. I myself could remember his funeral — remember it very vividly — though I was not more than six years old when it happened. I sat with my parents in the front of the gallery, at the back of the church that the old man had enlarged and enriched during the latter days of his life. The high altar blazed with hundreds of candles, the choir was entirely filled by the masses of flowers. The bishop was there, and a flock of priests in gorgeous vestments. When the pall-bearers arrived, Driscoll did not come to the church; the church went to him. The bishop and clergy went down the nave and met that great black coffin at the door, preceded by the cross and boys swinging cloudy censers, followed by the choir chanting to the organ. They surrounded, they received, they seemed to assimilate into the body of the church, the body of old John Driscoll. They bore it up to the high altar on a river of colour and incense and organ-tone; they claimed it and enclosed it.

In after years, when I went to other funerals, stark and grim enough, I thought of John Driscoll as having escaped the end of all flesh; it was as if he had been translated, with no dark conclusion to the pageant, no “night of the grave” about which our Protestant preachers talked. From the freshness of roses and lilies, from the glory of the high altar, he had gone straight to the greater glory, through smoking censers and candles and stars.

After I went home from that first glimpse of the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her, I could not help feeling a little disappointed. John Driscoll and his niece had suddenly changed places in my mind, and he had got, after all, the more romantic part. Was it not better to get out of the world with such pomp and dramatic splendour than to linger on in it, having to take account of shirts and railway trains, and getting a double chin into the bargain?

The Henshawes were in Parthia three days, and when they left, it was settled that I was to go on to New York with Aunt Lydia for the Christmas holidays. We were to stay at the old Fifth Avenue Hotel, which, as Myra said, was only a stone’s throw from their apartment, “if at any time a body was to feel disposed to throw one, Liddy!”

III

My Aunt Lydia and I arrived at the Jersey City station on the day before Christmas — a soft, grey December morning, with a little snow falling. Myra Henshawe was there to meet us; very handsome, I thought, as she came walking rapidly up the platform, her plump figure swathed in furs, — a fur hat on her head, with a single narrow garnet feather sticking out behind, like the pages’ caps in old story-books. She was not alone. She was attended by a tall, elegant young man in a blue-grey ulster. He had one arm through hers, and in the other hand he carried a walking-stick.

“This is Ewan Gray,” said Mrs. Henshawe, after she had embraced us. “Doubtless you have seen him play in Chicago. He is meeting an early train, too, so we planned to salute the morn together, and left Oswald to breakfast alone.”

The young man took our hand-luggage and walked beside me to the ferryboat, asking polite questions about our trip. He was a Scotchman, of an old theatrical family, a handsome fellow, with a broad, fair-skinned face, sand-coloured hair and moustache, and fine grey eyes, deep-set and melancholy, with black lashes. He took us up to the deck of the ferry, and then Mrs. Henshawe told him he had better leave us. “You must be there when Esther’s train gets in-and remember, you are to bring her to dine with us tomorrow night. There will be no one else.”

“Thank you, Myra.” He stood looking down at her with a grateful, almost humble expression, holding his soft hat against his breast, while the snow-flakes fell about his head. “And may I call in for a few moments to-night, to show you something?”

She laughed as if his request pleased her. “Something for her, I expect? Can’t you trust your own judgment?”

“You know I never do,” he said, as if that were an old story.

She gave him a little push. “Do put your hat on, or you’ll greet Esther with a sneeze. Run along.”

She watched him anxiously as he walked away, and groaned: “Oh, the deliberation of him! If I could only make him hurry once. You’ll hear all about him later, Nellie. You’ll have to see a good deal of him, but you won’t find it a hardship, I trust!”

The boat was pulling out, and I was straining my eyes to catch, through the fine, reluctant snow, my first glimpse of the city we were approaching. We passed the Wilhelm der Grosse coming up the river under tug, her sides covered with ice after a stormy crossing, a flock of seagulls in her wake. The snow blurred everything a little, and the buildings on the Battery all ran together — looked like an enormous fortress with a thousand windows. From the mass, the dull gold dome of the World building emerged like a ruddy autumn moon at twilight.

From the Twenty-third Street station we took the crosstown car — people were economical in those days — to the Fifth Avenue Hotel. After we had unpacked and settled our things, we went across the Square to lunch at Purcell’s, and there Mrs. Henshawe told us about Ewan Gray. He was in love with one of her dearest friends, Esther Sinclair, whose company was coming into New York for the holidays. Though he was so young, he had, she said, “a rather spotty past,” and Miss Sinclair, who was the daughter of an old New England family and had been properly brought up, couldn’t make up her mind whether he was stable enough to marry. “I don’t dare advise her, though I’m so fond of him. You can see; he’s just the sort of boy that women pick up and run off into the jungle with. But he’s never wanted to marry before; it might be the making of him. He’s distractedly in love — goes about like a sleep-walker. Still, I couldn’t bear it if anything cruel happened to Esther.”

Aunt Lydia and Myra were going to do some shopping. When we went out into Madison Square again, Mrs. Henshawe must have seen my wistful gaze, for she stopped short and said: “How would Nellie like it if we left her here, and picked her up as we come back? That’s our house, over there, second floor — so you won’t be far from home. To me this is the real heart of the city; that’s why I love living here.” She waved to me and hurried my aunt away.

Madison Square was then at the parting of the ways; had a double personality, half commercial, half social, with shops to the south and residences on the north. It seemed to me so neat, after the raggedness of our Western cities; so protected by good manners and courtesy — like an open-air drawing-room. I could well imagine a winter dancing party being given there, or a reception for some distinguished European visitor.

The snow fell lightly all the afternoon, and friendly old men with brooms kept sweeping the paths — very ready to talk to a girl from the country, and to brush off a bench so that she could sit down. The trees and shrubbery seemed well-groomed and sociable, like pleasant people. The snow lay in clinging folds on the bushes, and outlined every twig of every tree — a line of white upon a line of black. Madison Square Garden, new and spacious then, looked to me so light and fanciful, and Saint Gaudens’ Diana, of which Mrs. Henshawe had told me, stepped out freely and fearlessly into the grey air. I lingered long by the intermittent fountain. Its rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring. Not far away, on the corner, was an old man selling English violets, each bunch wrapped in oiled paper to protect them from the snow. Here, I felt, winter brought no desolation; it was tamed, like a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady.

About the Square the pale blue shadows grew denser and drew closer. The street lamps flashed out all along the Avenue, and soft lights began to twinkle in the tall buildings while it was yet day — violet buildings, just a little denser in substance and colour than the violet sky. While I was gazing up at them I heard a laugh close beside me, and Mrs. Henshawe’s arm slipped through mine.

“Why, you’re fair moon-struck, Nellie! I’ve seen the messenger boys dodging all about you!” It was true, droves of people were going through the Square now, and boys carrying potted plants and big wreaths. “Don’t you like to watch them? But we can’t stay. We’re going home to Oswald. Oh, hear the penny whistle! They always find me out.” She stopped a thin lad with a cap and yarn comforter but no overcoat, who was playing The Irish Washerwoman on a little pipe, and rummaged in her bag for a coin.

The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs.

Oswald was standing by the fire, drinking a whisky and soda while he waited for us. He put his glass down on the mantel as we opened the door, and forgot all about it. He pushed chairs up to the hearth for my aunt and me, and stood talking to us while his wife went to change her dress and to have a word with the Irish maid before dinner.

“By the way, Myra,” he said, as she left us, “I’ve put a bottle of champagne on ice; it’s Christmas eve.”

Everything in their little apartment seemed to me absolutely individual and unique, even the dinner service; the thick grey plates and the soup tureen painted with birds and big, bright flowers — I was sure there were no others like them in the world.

As we were finishing dinner the maid announced Mr. Gray. Henshawe went into the parlour to greet him, and we followed a moment later. The young man was in evening clothes, with a few sprays of white hyacinth in his coat. He stood by the fire, his arm on the mantel. His clean, fair skin and melancholy eyes, his very correct clothes, and something about the shape of his hands, made one conscious of a cool, deliberate fastidiousness in him. In spite of his spotty past he looked, that night, as fresh and undamaged as the flowers he wore. Henshawe took on a slightly bantering tone with him, and seemed to be trying to cheer him up. Mr. Gray would not sit down. After an interval of polite conversation he said to his host: “Will you excuse me if I take Myra away for a few moments? She has promised to do something kind for me.”

They went into Henshawe’s little study, off the parlour, and shut the door. We could hear a low murmur of voices. When they came back to us Mrs. Henshawe stood beside Gray while he put on his caped cloak, talking encouragingly. “The opals are beautiful, but I’m afraid of them, Ewan. Oswald would laugh at me, but all the same they have a bad history. Love itself draws on a woman nearly all the bad luck in the world; why, for mercy’s sake, add opals? He brought two bracelets for me to decide between them, Oswald, both lovely. However did they let you carry off two, Ewan?”

“They know me there. I always pay my bills, Myra. I don’t know why, but I do. I suppose it’s the Scotch in me.”

He wished us all good-night.

“Give a kiss to Esther for me,” said Mrs. Henshawe merrily at the door. He made no reply, but bent over her hand and vanished.

“What he really wanted was to show me some verses he’s made for her,” said Mrs. Henshawe, as she came back to the fire. “And very pretty ones they are, for sweet-heart poetry.”

Mr. Henshawe smiled. “Maybe you obliged him with a rhyme or two, my dear? Lydia — ” he sat down by my aunt and put his hand on hers — “I’d never feel sure that I did my own courting, if it weren’t that I was a long way off at the time. Myra is so fond of helping young men along. We nearly always have a love affair on hand.”

She put her hand over his lips. “Hush! I hate old women who egg on courtships.”

When Oswald had finished his cigar we were taken out for a walk. This was primarily for the good of her “figger,” Myra said, and incidentally we were to look for a green bush to send to Madame Modjeska. “She’s spending the holidays in town, and it will be dismal at her hotel.”

At the florist’s we found, among all the little trees and potted plants, a glistening holly-tree, full of red berries and pointed like a spire, easily the queen of its companions. “That is naturally hers,” said Mrs. Myra.

Her husband shrugged. “It’s naturally the most extravagant.”

Mrs. Myra threw up her head. “Don’t be petty, Oswald. It’s not a woollen petticoat or warm mittens that Madame is needing.” She gave careful instructions to the florist’s man, who was to take the tree to the Savoy; he was to carry with it a box of cakes, “of my baking,” she said proudly. He was to ask for Mrs. Hewes, the housekeeper, and under her guidance he was to carry the tree up to Madame Modjeska’s rooms himself. The man showed a sympathetic interest, and promised to follow instructions. Then Mrs. Henshawe gave him a silver dollar and wished him a Merry Christmas.

As we walked home she slipped her arm through mine, and we fell a little behind the other two. “See the moon coming out, Nellie — behind the tower. It wakens the guilt in me. No playing with love; and I’d sworn a great oath never to meddle again. You send a handsome fellow like Ewan Gray to a fine girl like Esther, and it’s Christmas eve, and they rise above us and the white world around us, and there isn’t anybody, not a tramp on the park benches, that wouldn’t wish them well — and very likely hell will come of it!”

IV

The next morning Oswald Henshawe, in a frock-coat and top-hat, called to take Aunt Lydia and me to church. The weather had cleared before we went to bed, and as we stepped out of our hotel that morning, the sun shone blindingly on the snow-covered park, the gold Diana flashed against a green-blue sky. We were going to Grace Church, and the morning was so beautiful that we decided to walk.

“Lydia,” said Henshawe, as he took us each by an arm, “I want you to give me a Christmas present.”

“Why, Oswald,” she stammered.

“Oh, I have it ready! You’ve only to present it.” He took a little flat package from his pocket and slipped it into her muff. He drew both of us closer to him. “Listen, it’s nothing. It’s some sleeve-buttons, given me by a young woman who means no harm, but doesn’t know the ways of the world very well. She’s from a breezy Western city, where a rich girl can give a present whenever she wants to and nobody questions it. She sent these to my office yesterday. If I send them back to her it will hurt her feelings; she would think I had misunderstood her. She’ll get hard knocks here, of course, but I don’t want to give her any. On the other hand — well, you know Myra; nobody better. She would punish herself and everybody else for this young woman’s questionable taste. So I want you to give them to me, Lydia.”

“Oh, Oswald,” cried my aunt, “Myra is so keen! I’m not clever enough to fool Myra. Can’t you just put them away in your office?”

“Not very well. Besides,” he gave a slightly embarrassed laugh, “I’d like to wear them. They are very pretty.”

“Now, Oswald. . .”

“Oh, it’s all right, Lydia, I give you my word it is. But you know how a little thing of that sort can upset my wife. I thought you might give them to me when you come over to dine with us tomorrow night. She wouldn’t be jealous of you. But if you don’t like the idea . . . why, just take them home with you and give them to some nice boy who would appreciate them.”

All through the Christmas service I could see that Aunt Lydia was distracted and perplexed. As soon as we got back to the hotel and were safe in our rooms she took the brown leather case from her muff and opened it. The sleeve-buttons were topazes, winy-yellow, lightly set in crinkly gold. I believe she was seduced by their beauty. “I really think he ought to have them, if he wants them. Everything is always for Myra. He never gets anything for himself. And all the admiration is for her; why shouldn’t he have a little? He has been devoted to a fault. It isn’t good for any woman to be humoured and pampered as he has humoured her. And she’s often most unreasonable with him — most unreasonable!”

The next evening, as we were walking across the Square to the Henshawes, we glanced up and saw them standing together in one of their deep front windows, framed by the plum-coloured curtains. They were looking out, but did not see us. I noticed that she was really quite a head shorter than he, and she leaned a little towards him. When she was peaceful, she was like a dove with its wings folded. There was something about them, as they stood in the lighted window, that would have discouraged me from meddling, but it did not shake my aunt.

As soon as we were in the parlour, before we had taken off our coats, she said resolutely: “Myra, I want to give Oswald a Christmas present. Once an old friend left with me some cufflinks he couldn’t keep — unpleasant associations, I suppose. I thought of giving them to one of my own boys, but I brought them for Oswald. I’d rather he would have them than anybody.”

Aunt Lydia spoke with an ease and conviction which compelled my admiration. She took the buttons out of her muff, without the box, of course, and laid them in Mrs. Henshawe’s hand.

Mrs. Henshawe was delighted. “How clever of you to think of it, Liddy, dear! Yes, they’re exactly right for him. There’s hardly any other stone I would like, but these are exactly right. Look, Oswald, they’re the colour of a fine Moselle.” It was Oswald himself who seemed disturbed, and not overpleased. He grew red, was confused in his remarks, and was genuinely reluctant when his wife insisted upon taking the gold buttons out of his cuffs and putting in the new ones. “I can’t get over your canniness, Liddy,” she said as she fitted them.

“It’s not like me, is it, Myra?” retorted my aunt; “not like me at all to choose the right sort of thing. But did it never occur to you that anyone besides yourself might know what is appropriate for Oswald? No, I’m sure it never did!”

Mrs. Myra took the laugh so heartily to herself that I felt it was a shame to deceive her. So, I am sure, did Oswald. During dinner he talked more than usual, but he was ill at ease. Afterwards, at the opera, when the lights were down, I noticed that he was not listening to the music, but was looking listlessly off into the gloom of the house, with something almost sorrowful in his strange, half-moon eyes. During an entr’acte a door at the back was opened, and a draught blew in. As he put his arm back to pull up the cloak which had slipped down from his wife’s bare shoulders, she laughed and said: “Oh, Oswald, I love to see your jewels flash!”

He dropped his hand quickly and frowned so darkly that I thought he would have liked to put the topazes under his heel and grind them up. I thought him properly served then, but often since I have wondered at his gentle heart.

V

During the week between Christmas and New Year’s day I was with Mrs. Henshawe a great deal, but we were seldom alone. It was the season of calls and visits, and she said that meeting so many people would certainly improve my manners and my English. She hated my careless, slangy, Western speech. Her friends, I found, were of two kinds: artistic people — actors, musicians, literary men — with whom she was always at her best because she admired them; and another group whom she called her “moneyed” friends (she seemed to like the word), and these she cultivated, she told me, on Oswald’s account. “He is the sort of man who does well in business only if he has the incentive of friendships. He doesn’t properly belong in business. We never speak of it, but I’m sure he hates it. He went into an office only because we were young and terribly in love, and had to be married.”

The business friends seemed to be nearly all Germans. On Sunday we called at half-a-dozen or more big houses. I remember very large rooms, much upholstered and furnished, walls hung with large paintings in massive frames, and many stiff, dumpy little sofas, in which the women sat two-and-two, while the men stood about the refreshment tables, drinking champagne and coffee and smoking fat black cigars. Among these people Mrs. Myra took on her loftiest and most challenging manner. I could see that some of the women were quite afraid of her. They were in great haste to rush refreshments to her, and looked troubled when she refused anything. They addressed her in German and profusely complimented her upon the way she spoke it. We had a carriage that afternoon, and Myra was dressed in her best — making an especial effort on Oswald’s account; but the rich and powerful irritated her. Their solemnity was too much for her sense of humour; there was a biting edge to her sarcasm, a curl about the corners of her mouth that was never there when she was with people whose personality charmed her.

I had one long, delightful afternoon alone with Mrs. Henshawe in Central Park. We walked for miles, stopped to watch the skating, and finally had tea at the Casino, where she told me about some of the singers and actors I would meet at her apartment on New Year’s eve. Her account of her friends was often more interesting to me than the people themselves. After tea she hailed a hansom and asked the man to drive us about the park a little, as a fine sunset was coming on. We were jogging happily along under the elms, watching the light change on the crusted snow, when a carriage passed from which a handsome woman leaned out and waved to us. Mrs. Henshawe bowed stiffly, with a condescending smile. “There, Nellie,” she exclaimed, “that’s the last woman I’d care to have splashing past me, and me in a hansom cab!”

I glimpsed what seemed to me insane ambition. My aunt was always thanking God that the Henshawes got along as well as they did, and worrying because she felt sure Oswald wasn’t saving anything. And here Mrs. Myra was wishing for a carriage — with stables and a house and servants, and all that went with a carriage! All the way home she kept her scornful expression, holding her head high and sniffing the purple air from side to side as we drove down Fifth Avenue. When we alighted before her door she paid the driver, and gave him such a large fee that he snatched off his hat and said twice: “Thank you, thank you, my lady!” She dismissed him with a smile and a nod. “All the same,” she whispered to me as she fitted her latchkey, “it’s very nasty, being poor!”

That week Mrs. Henshawe took me to see a dear friend of hers, Anne Aylward, the poet. She was a girl who had come to New York only a few years before, had won the admiration of men of letters, and was now dying of tuberculosis in her early twenties. Mrs. Henshawe had given me a book of her poems to read, saying: “I want you to see her so that you can remember her in after years, and I want her to see you so that we can talk you over.”

Miss Aylward lived with her mother in a small flat overlooking the East River, and we found her in a bathchair, lying in the sun and watching the river boats go by. Her study was a delightful place that morning, full of flowers and plants and baskets of fruit that had been sent her for Christmas. But it was Myra Henshawe herself who made that visit so memorably gay. Never had I seen her so brilliant and strangely charming as she was in that sunlit study up under the roofs. Their talk quite took my breath away; they said such exciting, such fantastic things about people, books, music — anything; they seemed to speak together a kind of highly flavoured special language.

As we were walking home she tried to tell me more about Miss Aylward, but tenderness for her friend and bitter rebellion at her fate choked her voice. She suffered physical anguish for that poor girl. My aunt often said that Myra was incorrigibly extravagant; but I saw that her chief extravagance was in caring for so many people, and in caring for them so much. When she but mentioned the name of some one whom she admired, one got an instant impression that the person must be wonderful, her voice invested the name with a sort of grace. When she liked people she always called them by name a great many times in talking to them, and she enunciated the name, no matter how commonplace, in a penetrating way, without hurrying over it or slurring it; and this, accompanied by her singularly direct glance, had a curious effect. When she addressed Aunt Lydia, for instance, she seemed to be speaking to a person deeper down than the blurred, taken-for-granted image of my aunt that I saw every day, and for a moment my aunt became more individual, less matter-of-fact to me. I had noticed this peculiar effect of Myra’s look and vocative when I first met her, in Parthia, where her manner of addressing my relatives had made them all seem a little more attractive to me.

One afternoon when we were at a matinée I noticed in a loge a young man who looked very much like the photographs of a story-writer popular at that time. I asked Mrs. Henshawe whether it could be he. She looked in the direction I indicated, then looked quickly away again.

“Yes, it’s he. He used to be a friend of mine. That’s a sad phrase, isn’t it? But there was a time when he could have stood by Oswald in a difficulty — and he didn’t. He passed it up. Wasn’t there. I’ve never forgiven him.”

I regretted having noticed the man in the loge, for all the rest of the afternoon I could feel the bitterness working in her. I knew that she was suffering. The scene on the stage was obliterated for her; the drama was in her mind. She was going over it all again; arguing, accusing, denouncing.

As we left the theatre she sighed: “Oh, Nellie, I wish you hadn’t seen him! It’s all very well to tell us to forgive our enemies; our enemies can never hurt us very much. But oh, what about forgiving our friends?” — she beat on her fur collar with her two gloved hands — “that’s where the rub comes!”

The Henshawes always gave a party on New Year’s eve. That year most of the guests were stage people. Some of them, in order to get there before midnight, came with traces of make-up still on their faces. I remember old Jefferson de Angelais arrived in his last-act wig, carrying his plumed hat — during the supper his painted eyebrows spread and came down over his eyes like a veil. Most of them are dead now, but it was a fine group that stood about the table to drink the New Year in. By far the handsomest and most distinguished of that company was a woman no longer young, but beautiful in age, Helena Modjeska. She looked a woman of another race and another period, no less queenly than when I had seen her in Chicago as Marie Stuart, and as Katharine in Henry VIII. I remember how, when Oswald asked her to propose a toast, she put out her long arm, lifted her glass, and looking into the blur of the candlelight with a grave face, said: “To my coun-n-try!”

As she was not playing, she had come early, some time before the others, bringing with her a young Polish woman who was singing at the Opera that winter. I had an opportunity to watch Modjeska as she sat talking to Myra and Esther Sinclair — Miss Sinclair had once played in her company. When the other guests began to arrive, and Myra was called away, she sat by the fire in a high-backed chair, her head resting lightly on her hand, her beautiful face half in shadow. How well I remember those long, beautifully modelled hands, with so much humanity in them. They were worldly, indeed, but fashioned for a nobler worldliness than ours; hands to hold a sceptre, or a chalice — or, by courtesy, a sword.

The party did not last long, but it was a whirl of high spirits. Everybody was hungry and thirsty. There was a great deal of talk about Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, which had been running all week and had aroused hot controversy; and about Jean de Reszke’s return to the Metropolitan that night, after a long illness in London.

By two o’clock every one had gone but the two Polish ladies. Modjeska, after she put on her long cloak, went to the window, drew back the plum-coloured curtains, and looked out. “See, Myra,” she said with that Slav accent she never lost, though she read English verse so beautifully, “the Square is quite white with moonlight. And how still all the ci-ty is, how still!” She turned to her friend; “Emelia, I think you must sing something. Something old . . . yes, from Norma.” She hummed a familiar air under her breath, and looked about for a chair. Oswald brought one. “Thank you. And we might have less light, might we not?” He turned off the lights.

She sat by the window, half draped in her cloak, the moonlight falling across her knees. Her friend went to the piano and commenced the Casta Diva aria, which begins so like the quivering of moonbeams on the water. It was the first air on our old music-box at home, but I had never heard it sung — and I have never heard it sung so beautifully since. I remember Oswald, standing like a statue behind Madame Modjeska’s chair, and Myra, crouching low beside the singer, her head in both hands, while the song grew and blossomed like a great emotion.

When it stopped, nobody said anything beyond a low good-bye. Modjeska again drew her cloak around her, and Oswald took them down to their carriage. Aunt Lydia and I followed, and as we crossed the Square we saw their cab going up the Avenue. For many years I associated Mrs. Henshawe with that music, thought of that aria as being mysteriously related to something in her nature that one rarely saw, but nearly always felt; a compelling, passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name, but which was audible, visible in the air that night, as she sat crouching in the shadow. When I wanted to recall powerfully that hidden richness in her, I had only to close my eyes and sing to myself: “Casta diva, casta diva!”

VI

On Saturday I was to lunch at the Henshawes’ and go alone with Oswald to hear Bernhardt and Coquelin. As I opened the door into the entry hall, the first thing that greeted me was Mrs. Henshawe’s angry laugh, and a burst of rapid words that stung like cold water from a spray.

“I tell you, I will know the truth about this key, and I will go through any door your keys open. Is that clear?”

Oswald answered with a distinctly malicious chuckle: “My dear, you’d have a hard time getting through that door. The key happens to open a safety deposit box.”

Her voice rose an octave in pitch. “How dare you lie to me, Oswald? How dare you? They told me at your bank that this wasn’t a bank key, though it looks like one. I stopped and showed it to them — the day you forgot your keys and telephoned me to bring them down to your office.”

“The hell you did!”

I coughed and rapped at the door . . . they took no notice of me. I heard Oswald push back a chair. “Then it was you who took my keys out of my pocket? I might have known it! I never forget to change them. And you went to the bank and made me and yourself ridiculous. I can imagine their amusement.”

“Well, you needn’t! I know how to get information without giving any. Here is Nellie Birdseye, rapping at the gates. Come in, Nellie. You and Oswald are going over to Martin’s for lunch. He and I are quarrelling about a key-ring. There will be no luncheon here today.”

She went away, and I stood bewildered. This delightful room had seemed to me a place where light-heartedness and charming manners lived — housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.

“It’s all right, Nellie.” Oswald recovered himself and put a hand on my shoulder. “Myra isn’t half so furious with me as she pretends. I’ll get my hat and we’ll be off.” He was in his smoking-jacket, and had been sitting at his desk, writing. His inkwell was uncovered, and on the blotter lay a half-written sheet of note paper.

I was glad to get out into the sunlight with him. The city seemed safe and friendly and smiling. The air in that room had been like poison. Oswald tried to make it up to me. We walked round and round the Square, and at Martin’s he made me drink a glass of sherry, and pointed out the interesting people in the dining-room and told me stories about them. But without his hat, his head against the bright window, he looked tired and troubled. I wondered, as on the first time I saw him, in my own town, at the contradiction in his face: the strong bones, and the curiously shaped eyes without any fire in them. I felt that his life had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another sort of world might have asserted themselves brilliantly. I thought he ought to have been a soldier or an explorer. I have since seen those half-moon eyes in other people, and they were always inscrutable, like his; fronted the world with courtesy and kindness, but one never got behind them.

We went to the theatre, but I remember very little of the performance except a dull heartache, and a conviction that I should never like Mrs. Myra so well again. That was on Saturday. On Monday Aunt Lydia and I were to start for home. We positively did not see the Henshawes again. Sunday morning the maid came with some flowers and a note from Myra, saying that her friend Anne Aylward was having a bad day and had sent for her.

On Monday we took an early boat across the ferry, in order to breakfast in the Jersey station before our train started. We had got settled in our places in the Pullman, the moment of departure was near, when we heard an amused laugh, and there was Myra Henshawe, coming into the car in her fur hat, followed by a porter who carried her bags.

“I didn’t plot anything so neat as this, Liddy,” she laughed, a little out of breath, “though I knew we’d be on the same train. But we won’t quarrel, will we? I’m only going as far as Pittsburgh. I’ve some old friends there. Oswald and I have had a disagreement, and I’ve left him to think it over. If he needs me, he can quite well come after me.”

All day Mrs. Myra was jolly and agreeable, though she treated us with light formality, as if we were new acquaintances. We lunched together, and I noticed, sitting opposite her, that when she was in this mood of high scorn, her mouth, which could be so tender — which cherished the names of her friends and spoke them delicately — was entirely different. It seemed to curl and twist about like a little snake. Letting herself think harm of anyone she loved seemed to change her nature, even her features.

It was dark when we got into Pittsburgh. The Pullman porter took Myra’s luggage to the end of the car. She bade us good-bye, started to leave us, then turned back with an icy little smile. “Oh, Liddy dear, you needn’t have perjured yourself for those yellow cuff-buttons. I was sure to find out, I always do. I don’t hold it against you, but it’s disgusting in a man to lie for personal decorations. A woman might do it, now . . . for pearls!” With a bright nod she turned away and swept out of the car, her head high, the long garnet feather drooping behind.

Aunt Lydia was very angry. “I’m sick of Myra’s dramatics,” she declared. “I’ve done with them. A man never IS justified, but if ever a man was. . .”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/my_mortal_enemy/part1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30